Medical clinic settles English-only civil rights lawsuit
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 21, 2005
Carl Holcombe

A Casa Grande medical clinic that fired nine Hispanic employees within days of implementing English-only office rules will pay $190,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Paradise Valley-based Harvest Medical Clinic Inc., which has a clinic in Casa Grande, issued the rules and fired the employees in May 2003, according to a lawsuit filed in August 2004 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Susan Villanueva had worked for the clinic for about six years when married owners Dr. Henry Tomlinson and Leona Tomlinson fired her, citing downsizing. It was ironic, Villanueva said, because she and other Hispanic employees had been hired in part for their bilingual skills with Spanish-speaking patients.

"I still don't know why they did it," Villanueva said. "I was very offended and thought these rules were ridiculous. Did they just wake up and decide no more Spanish?"

Based on the 2000 U.S. census, nearly 40 percent of the growing Pinal County city's 25,224 residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin. More than one-fourth of the population lives in households where a language other than English is spoken.

The EEOC lawsuit claimed the majority of Harvest Medical Clinic's patients spoke Spanish. Leona Tomlinson said translation was needed for only about 100 of the 10,000 patients the clinic cares for each year.

Carmen Marquez, 43, a former employee, said about 75 percent of the clinic's patients spoke only Spanish and many have moved on to different clinics after the firings.

The Tomlinsons call discrimination claims false. They said they decided to settle because they didn't want to pay attorney fees for a protracted federal court battle they would probably lose and have to pay compensation for anyway.

"There isn't a prejudiced bone in our bodies," she said. "We needed it ended."

She said the workplace had turned ugly because the employees intentionally began using Spanish around the office so the Tomlinsons couldn't understand them.

Behind the language barrier, the employees began using profanity and criticizing management, she said. She said that behavior cost the clinic patients and prompted the English-only rules.

EEOC officials said those claims were unfounded. They said the employees were told the company was downsizing, but only Hispanics were terminated and the company soon after hired workers.

"Denials of use of language occur when people act out of fear or a lack of knowledge," said EEOC spokeswoman Michelle Marshall. "In this case, they actually gave several different reasons for termination, including downsizing. But they actually doubled their employees and expanded their facilities."

After being fired, it was seven months before Villanueva was able to land a job. She now works at Casa Grande Regional Medical Center and is working on getting a degree from Central Arizona College.

"It's a small town," said Villanueva, who will collect a $17,354 settlement for back pay and damages. "Because so many people were let go, we were the talk of the town. I applied at other clinics . . . there were not a lot of call backs."